By Marty Farmer
With the high school sports year approaching, several compelling storylines will naturally emerge regarding the success of local teams, players and coaches. Assuredly, there will be fresh new faces of burgeoning stars that adorn the Wednesday Journal sports section.
Along with the new sensations, let's not forget these five proven winners who will play prominent roles in the 2017-2018 local high school sports narrative.
Maeve Nelson, OPRF senior, softball
The first question about Nelson is how many sports will she play? She enrolled at OPRF from St. Luke as one of the most promising three-sport athletes to ever become a Huskie. For the most part, she's made good on her considerable talent by cashing in two Class 4A softball state championships as an All-State shortstop for the Huskies.
As the anchor of the Huskies' developing dynasty offensively and defensively, Nelson led the team in home runs (12) and RBIs (61) last season. She also hit .514 with 60 runs scored, .603 on-base percentage and .963 slugging percentage.
Simply put, she's been the best position player (other than pitcher Chardonnay Harris) on the two-time reigning state champs, who capped off their glorious 74-3 run the past two seasons with a riveting 1-0 win against Lincoln-Way East in the Class 4A final on Saturday in Peoria.
During her first two years of high schools, Nelson also enjoyed personal and team success in volleyball and basketball. However, Nelson didn't play for either team last season due to a torn labrum injury.
Already committed to Northwestern for softball, will Nelson focus solely on vying for a three-peat in softball or play multiple sports? It's one of the most interesting questions entering the upcoming sports year.
Regardless of her decision, Nelson will be driven to close out her high school career in memorable fashion. For all of her natural gifts athletically, Nelson's determination and work ethic are even more impressive.
Anthony Madrigal, OPRF senior wrestler
Madrigal finished last season victorious, but not the way he envisioned.
When the Huskies met Montini in the quarterfinals of the Class 3A team state tournament in Bloomington, the random draw put Madrigal's 126-pound match as the last of the 14.
"Right from the get go we knew the match could come down to me," Madrigal said. "I was just ready to go out and do whatever it takes for my team."
Madrigal never got the chance.
Before the final match, Montini mathematically won and gave Madrigal the six-point forfeit to make the final score 29-26, abruptly halting the Huskies' state championship run at three in a row.
In the IHSA individual state tournament, Madrigal (39-3) finished second at 126 pounds.
Like Nelson, Madrigal is focused on achieving personal and team success in the welcomed new role of team leader.
"[The seniors] contributed a lot to us. Most of them were in the varsity lineup and made a big impact," Madrigal said about last season. "Knowing that I'm coming back being a senior and knowing it's my team now, I think we've got a lot of young guys that are hungry and are ready to win. I'm very excited for it."
DJ Steward, Fenwick basketball, sophomore
In a season full of highlights, the Friars' sensational sophomore saved his best for last.
A precocious freshman in the Class 3A state finals, Steward shot a perfect game against Morgan Park, going 10-for-10 from the field (including a pair of 3-pointers) and 2-for-2 at the free throw line to finish with a game-high 26 points. He also had seven rebounds and four steals in one of the best performances by a player of any class in state finals history.
Unfortunately, the Friars fell to the Mustangs 69-67 in overtime.
Steward found his game around Christmas when he averaged a team-high 11.3 points on 18 of 28 shooting (64.3 percent) at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. His improved play was the best gift the Friars could have hoped for as Steward and seniors Jacob Keller and Jamal Nixon comprised a versatile, formidable "Big 3" in the heart of the lineup.
Ranked as the 13th best shooting guard in ESPN's Class of 2020, Steward has major upside. Best of all, he's equipped well to handle both the success and stress that comes with being an elite high school hoopster.
"DJ is going to be a special player," Fenwick coach Rick Malnati said. "He's a special kid.
"He's very poised and he really shoots the ball well. Defensively he's got a lot to learn, but he'll learn because he's very eager and very coachable."
Natalie Ungaretti, OPRF junior swimmer
Whatever happens the next two seasons, Ungaretti is already ensconced in the record books as one of the greatest swimmers in OPRF history.
Ungaretti became only the third OPRF girl to win an individual title when she captured the 50-yard freestyle (23.13 seconds) as a sophomore last season. She also teamed with Hanna Blankemeier, Alex Gill and Samm Neilson in the 200-yard medley at the state meet to become just the third relay team in program history to win a championship.
OPRF placed fourth at the state meet, marking the program's best finish since 1989, when the Huskies won their second of back-to-back team state titles.
Ungaretti, who trains year round, is poised for more success when the regular season rolls around.
"I've been training really hard for a long time," she said. "I've been in age groups since I was 9, so after a while it's really just how you prepare yourself mentally and how you prepare yourself with a positive attitude. Just being a happier person, being happier in the sport has really made a difference."
Mike O'Laughlin, Fenwick senior, football/basketball
For pure athleticism and ability, O'Laughlin is the top football player in Oak Park and one of the best in the state. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, he caught 54 passes for 939 yards and eight touchdowns last season for the Friars' Class 7A state semifinalist. His brother, Casey, who graduated this year will play baseball at Northwestern.
With the loss of several key starters like quarterback Jacob Keller, running back Conner Lillig, wide receiver Sherman Martin and tight end Jack Henige to graduation, O'Laughlin will be the focal point offensively for Fenwick as a returning 7A All-State wide receiver. He's capable of playing multiple positions including tight end, wide receiver, H-back and running back.
The Glen Ellyn resident also played forward on the basketball team, which produced the most wins (30) in a single season and the aforementioned state finals appearance.
Although he's committed to play football at West Virginia next year, he's living in the now and very appreciative of the support from Friar Nation.
"We just would like to really thank the Fenwick community for following us all year and being behind us through everything," O'Laughlin said after last season. "They really made a difference and the players noticed it as well as Coach Malnati. It's pretty special when you get that much support from your school and you end up going downstate."
While new stars will surface this season, look for these five exemplary athletes to take their game to an even higher level.
Answer Book 2017
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